You Could Make This Place Beautiful

I recently listened to Maggie Smith read her latest book, You Could Make This Place Beautiful. I was moved by the magnificence of her poetic voice as she unraveled the pain of her divorce and after-marriage, during which she candidly acknowledged  “I don’t have access to the whole picture- only to the mine. I am out with lanterns looking for myself.”

  • It seems to me that we’re all out with lanterns looking for ourselves.
  • And without the looking, there is no finding. 

When I heard Maggie Smith say “there are years that question and years that answer,” quoting Zura Neale Hurston from Their Eyes Were Watching God, I was reminded of the blogpost I wrote about that book and the constancy of our nature to look for meaning and beauty in life. Listening to Maggie Smith through a lens of hope that people see divorce not only as a dissolution but also as a time of evolution, what stood out to me were her word and language choices, and her discussion of marital contracts. Her word choice was notable. After discovering a postcard her husband had written to another woman,  he became “the writer of postcards, later becoming “my children’s father”.

Words and language choice matter a great deal to Consilium practitioners. For the past year or so, Judge Julie Field (ret.) and I have hosted a webinar entitled: “Change your Language, Change Your Outcomes.” We talk about the importance of shifting language, saying for instance, “your home with your dad, and your home with your mom,” instead of saying “your dad’s house and your mom’s house.”

  • How different does that phrasing feel to you?  

To my ear, it’s a palpable change, one that gives a child two homes, rather than none.

In contracts, words matter.

  • Marital contracts are sometimes put into words, but often they are not.

In law school I remember discussing the differences between written contracts and oral contracts, which my dad always said were as good as the paper they were written on. What I don’t recall is a discussion of silent contracts- the unwritten and unspoken contracts we often unwittingly craft and to which we become stealthily bound.

  • What in fact are spoken and unspoken marital contracts?

And as Maggie Smith wonders “What happens when you’ve outgrown the contract?” 

When a marital contract is changed and not renegotiated, it leads to either an unhappy marriage or a divorce. With a divorce, a new contract results, and much of it is put into written words. 

  • As lawyers, how can we craft contracts that allow people to find their new place and make it beautiful?

Contracts are the path that people follow to look for answers. They can be a lantern, but contracts don’t always light every corner of the path.

Holding fast to poetic words, like these thoughts of Maggie Smith, can help light the way.

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